Nursery Provision at Moorfields Primary School

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 30 September 2002.

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Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP 4:00, 30 September 2002

During the summer, I received correspondence from the board of governors of Moorfields Primary School outlining the battle in which the school has been engaged with the North Eastern Education and Library Board. That battle concerns the provision of a nursery unit in that locality and has been ongoing for several years. It began as a result of the complete absence of statutory and voluntary provision for children of nursery age in that area.

Glenwherry is a large rural ward outside Ballymena. Its vastness is one of the reasons that dedicated nursery provision is required at Moorfields Primary School. Members who are unfamiliar with the area may find the following statistics helpful. Moorfields Primary School is more than five miles from nursery provision in Ballymena and 10 miles from provision in Ballyclare, and both facilities are oversubscribed. Provision in Larne is 13 miles away. Assuming space were available at any of those locations, the distances involved make it unlikely that parents would seriously consider provision offered there. Imagine the frustration felt by the school and the residents at being denied nursery provision despite the obvious need in the area, when smaller areas and the maintained and integrated sector are catered for and receive preference in funding and provision. At best, that is discrimination; at worst, it is a sectarian policy that deprives parents and children of their rights.

The outworking of Government policy has discriminated against children in that area and deprived them of the opportunity to avail of nursery education, which the Government claim should be available to every child.

Furthermore, it makes a nonsense of this Government’s intention to target social need. Women and children from rural areas are being disadvantaged by the outworking of that policy. A policy that does not target those in real need is not a policy at all. Immediate action must be taken to address that obvious need. The Government’s pledge that there will be a place for every child rings hollow at Moorfields Primary School. Immediate action is required.

The facts make for stark reading. Despite the greater number of pupils and new places in the controlled sector of the North Eastern Education and Library Board over the past four years, most Pre-school Education Advisory Group (PEAG) programme places have gone to the maintained and integrated sectors. In real terms, that is 598 places as opposed to 520. That has an obvious funding implication and can affect the future of primary provision in certain areas. Departmental statistics alone prove that no part of Glenwherry’s need is met. The calculations used by the board are in error, so the Department should open afresh the allocation procedure.

Let me explain. The board estimates the shortfall at Glenwherry to be 40 places. That number results from subtracting the total pre-school provision — 44 places — from the number of P1 children, which is 84. Accordingly, it is assumed that existing provision, to some extent, meets local need. The fallacy of that approach is revealed by an analysis of the two wards served by the pre-school providers, the Country Playgroup and the Tiny Tots Community Playgroup. It emerges that Glenwherry is served by neither of those two excellent providers. Glenwherry, therefore, is not catered for and should be near the top of the list of areas requiring assistance. However, it is fifth on the list and unlikely to receive assistance.

The plain truth is that the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB) and the Department of Education make no provision for pre-school children from the Moorfields area. When will that provision be made? In November 2000, Gordon Topping, the chief executive of the board wrote to the board of governors of Moorfields Primary School admitting that there is

"a shortfall in pre-school provision in the Glenwherry area and that this will be addressed as and when additional resources become available."

It is now 2002, and no identified resources have come to Moorfields to address its obvious need.

Will the Minister put his money where the board’s mouth is? A unit at Moorfields Primary School is urgently required and will go some way towards meeting local need. My questions demand serious answers, and I hope that the Minister can provide them. What resources will be allocated to Moorfields in the current financial year for a nursery unit? Secondly, what is the total provision in respect of money and the number of places for pre-school children in the Glenwherry ward? Thirdly, with no provision in the Glenwherry ward, how does the Department of Education intend to meet the Government’s promise of a place for every child whose parents want it? Fourthly, does the Minister accept that there are flaws in the PEAG process report, given how provision has been calculated for Moorfields? Fifthly, will the Minister amend the PEAG programme to accommodate need at Moorfields?

The need at Moorfields is real and will affect the opportunities that its children will have in later life. The sooner they are in nursery school, the better rewarded they will be. Depriving them of that opportunity deprives a massive rural hinterland of rights which can be expected in other parts of Northern Ireland. Depriving those children, rather than those in the minority whose parents choose other sectors, is woefully wrong. The Minister should provide the necessary funds for Moorfields to enable it to keep up with the opportunities offered to children elsewhere.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I support the subject of this Adjournment debate. The Member who has brought this matter to the attention of the House has made it known that a parent in the Moorfields area who asks for accommodation for children in a nursery school is told to go to Ballymena, three or four miles away. In Ballymena every place has been taken, and the parent is told to go to Ballyclare, 10 miles away. Again, in Ballyclare, every place has been taken. The nearest place in which there is a likelihood, and only a likelihood, of a child’s receiving nursery care is 13 miles away in Larne. There must be something frightfully wrong if children in the Moorfields Primary School catchment area are discriminated against and cannot participate in that which was promised to them by the Executive.

It is discrimination because, if money is not given, nursery places cannot be provided. Money must be given. Although other education sectors receive funding, this sector does not receive enough funding to supply adequate nursery places and fulfil the promise that was made. It is surely the duty of the Minister to ensure that that matter is rectified.

Anyone who knows the religious breakdown of the population of the Glenwherry area knows that it is largely Protestant. Why are children from that large Protestant population not given the opportunity that is afforded to other children of another faith who are provided for by a different system of education? Of course, all children are legally entitled to provision under the scheme. However, the Protestant people there are not getting their entitlement, and, because it is such a vital issue, it is only right that the House is informed and the Minister pressed on the matter.

Members know how difficult it is to rear families in Northern Ireland, which is largely due to unemployment. Sometimes it is mothers who are employed and earn the money necessary to keep the home. However, a mother can do that only if nursery provision is available for her children. It is wrong to expect a mother to travel 52 miles a day — 13 miles from Glenwherry to Larne to leave her child at a nursery school and then back again to work and the same again to collect her child when she has finished her work — to avail of the nursery place to which her child is legally entitled. That must be remedied immediately, which means that money must be made available and planning started straight away.

I am speaking on behalf of those children who deserve, are entitled to, and ought to have nursery provision, and the House is where such matters should be raised. The Department of Education must ensure that it fulfils its promises and meets its legal requirements. Therefore I urge it to consider the situation carefully to ensure that the discrimination ceases and the matter is remedied so that there is equal opportunity for all children, no matter what faith they may be of or to which school system their parents want to send them.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on such an important subject, and I congratulate Ian Paisley Jnr for raising this at the Adjournment. I apologise for the absence of my Colleague, Rev Robert Coulter, who is on important Assembly business elsewhere. He has made representations to me, as Chairperson of the Committee for Education, on this important matter. It might be useful to Mr Paisley Jnr and other Members to know that I have written to the chief executive of the North Eastern Education and Library Board expressing concern and asking for details of the situation at Moorfields Primary School. When a reply is made, I shall copy it to interested Members. I do not want to spend a great deal of time outlining the case; obviously local Members are in a much better position to do that. However, the matter has been raised with the Committee for Education, and it will pursue the issues involved. It is to be hoped that the Committee can come to a more satisfactory conclusion than that which pertains at the moment.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin 4:15, 30 September 2002

The Department of Education is responsible for the implementation of the pre-school education expansion programme, which has been one of the most significant educational developments here in recent years. It has been planned at local level by each education and library board’s pre-school education advisory group, or PEAGs, as they are known. I am grateful to these groups for their expertise and extensive local knowledge, and for the vital role that they play in implementing the programme. I wish to pay tribute to them for their hard work.

Throughout the programme, the PEAGs have been responsible for identifying those areas that have a shortfall in funded pre-school provision and for determining whether that shortfall should be addressed by creating new places in the statutory or voluntary sectors. I emphasise that the resources that are available under the programme allowed only for a specific level of capital investment, and the PEAGs carefully assessed areas for which capital resources should be used.

That assessment took into account factors such as the existence of providers in the voluntary and private sectors, as well as future viability. The expansion programme is an integral part of the Department of Education’s new targeting social need action plan, so levels of social disadvantage were also taken into account.

I mentioned the voluntary and private sectors to emphasise that provision of the programme is not confined to the statutory sector; indeed, the programme has established a partnership between the two. The Education and Training Inspectorate’s report ‘Begin with Quality’, which I launched 10 days ago, reported favourably on the quality of the non-statutory centres. The North Eastern Education and Library Board’s PEAG decided that, taking all relevant factors into consideration, and within the capital funding that was available to it, the provision of a nursery unit at Moorfields Primary School was not a priority. Therefore it was not included in the PEAG’s development plans. Additional funded pre-school provision in the Glenwherry and Kells ward cluster was created instead, by the allocation of 60 funded places for two playgroups in the area. Inspections by the Education and Training Inspectorate have shown that parents with children in those playgroups are being provided with high-quality places.

I am aware that there has been correspondence between the North Eastern Board’s PEAG and the school about the establishment of a nursery unit. My Department has asked that PEAG to consider the need for a statutory nursery unit at the school and to give its view of the matter.

I do not accept for one minute that the controlled sector has been inequitably treated by the PEAG or by the board. I refute any allegations of discrimination by the PEAG or the board against any section of our community. The maintained and integrated sectors have, historically, had less nursery provision than the controlled sector. However, all sectors have benefited from the creation of new provision under the expansion programme. The PEAG continues to deal with the matters that the school raised, and the North Eastern Education and Library Board and my Department will receive their advice in due course.

The expansion programme has been successful, and I anticipate that provision will rise to approximately 95% during the school year. That is over the estimated provision of approximately 90%. Therefore I am confident that the target of a place for every child whose parents wish it will be met.

We must also recognise that local issues remain in any large-scale programme. Those will usually have local causes and will need local solutions. The PEAGs and my Department will continue to work together to find those solutions.

Adjourned at 4.20 pm.